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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

Although the practice of Fosterage was by no means peculiar to the Celtic tribes, it is still little understood, and its influence in the formation of our national character seems to have been quite ignored. In Ireland the custom of sending out the children of the chieftain class to be fostered by some family of the tribe, seems to have been universally prevalent in the Celtic districts, and continued to exist, in parts of the country, even so late as the seventeenth century, when it gradually fell into disuse.

The laws which regulate the practice of Fosterage are of great value for rightly understanding the social relations and the educational system, if it can be so called, in vogue with our Celtic forefathers. There were two kinds of Fosterage recognised by the law; one for payment, altrum ar iarraith; and one from affection, altrum ar airiur; but it is with the former, as might be expected, the law principally deals. It seems to have been an accepted principle that “the Fosterage of every son is according to his price of Fosterage.” Hence the law is very minute in its provisions, and—what is specially interesting to us—it sets forth with great exactness the mutual obligations of the natural father and the foster father, and regulates the food, clothing and education, which is to be given both to male and female foster children. The price of Fosterage for the farming classes was, generally speaking, three ‘seds,’ something less than three cows in value; for the chieftain classes the price varied with the rank of the parents, until it reached thirty cows in the case of a king’s son. The food was generally stirabout, with butter or honey as a savour. No legal provision seems to have been made for the literary education of the foster-children; but the law is imperative on giving them useful technical education according to their position in life. The youths of the farming classes were to be taught to herd lambs, calves, kids and young pigs; and also kiln-drying, wool-combing and wood-cutting—the useful arts of domestic life. The girls of the same class were taught to grind with the ‘quern’ or hand-mill, to sieve the meal and knead the dough for baking. The daughters of the chieftain classes were required to sew, cut out, and embroider; and the chieftains’ sons were taught military and athletic exercises—horsemanship, spear-throwing, shooting, chess-playing and swimming. If the foster-father neglected his duty in procuring the prescribed instruction for the children, he was by law subjected to a heavy fine, payable to the father, or afterwards to the child himself, to whom the wrong was done.

The foster-father was, moreover, responsible for injuries to the child arising from his neglect, and was also responsible for the injuries done by the boy which the foster-parent might have prevented. On the other hand, he was entitled to a portion of the eric-fine, payable for any injury inflicted, without his knowledge and against his will, on his foster-children, just as if they were his own children.

The fosterage terminated at the age of fourteen for girls, and seventeen for boys. The foster-father sent a gift with the youth when returning home. This was intended to remind both the foster-child and his parents that in poverty or in old age the foster-parents were entitled by law and affection to be maintained like the natural parents by the foster-children. This was a most beautiful provision of the law. It tended to preserve and deepen the bonds of family affection between the various members of the tribe, and cement them together, in rude and turbulent times, by the tenderest and closest ties. And we know from Irish history that the greatest affection subsisted between the foster-child and his adopted family, and that it was deemed as impious for him to wrong any one of them as if they were members of his own family. In this respect the spirit of the Celtic code is beautifully expressed in Ferguson’s well-known ballad, “The Welshmen of Tirawley.”

We can say only a few words of






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